(The book was originally published in 1955. This was this month's CT detective book club choice, which I suppose we need to change to the CT detective/mystery/crime book club. There are much better covers on other editions of the book than this annoying, oh-so-wrong movie one, but this is actually the version I read.)
The best place to read this book is in the bath, preferably with some delicious-smelling bubbly stuff and a rubber duckie to float around and keep you company. Afterwards, you can pour yourself a small glass of sherry and pretend you've been reading, oh, I don't know, Little Women or some such thing, rather than spending however many hours it's taken you to read 290 pages, immersed in the thoughts and feelings of a sociopath. You can try not to be disconcerted by the fact that you found yourself worrying about his predicament, maybe even rooting for him.
Deeply cleansed, you will head off to bed, where your subconscience will bring out nightmare after nightmare -- sinking boats, murderers creeping up your stairs, rats biting at your ankles -- because it knows perfectly well what you've been doing and that it had nothing to do with a tender family of little women in 19th-century New England. That rat showed up nowhere in Highsmith's tale, but you know perfectly well that it scurried through a hole it had gnawed in the book in order to go rooting around in your brain.
Very rarely do I read a book that induces nightmares, but this one put on a grand horror show for me. Which is not to say I didn't like it. It was very well-written. It was well-conceived. It was a doozy of a page-turner, and it will stick with me.
I liked it very much, the same way I liked the movie Shutter Island (terrific movie, BTW, which made me -- guess what! -- want to read the book). I liked the suspense. I liked the horror of it. I liked the way it made me scared to think how little we know anyone, how easily I, as a twenty-something, could have decided to spend a weekend with a murderer and wind up dead, my parents having no idea what had happened to me. I don't need much encouragement to think about such things anyway.
Who (what?) is Tom Ripley? He is an absolutely despicable, and yet mesmerizing, character. Patricia Highsmith certainly knew a little something about psychology when she created him. He is a man, abandoned as a boy by his dead parents, sent to live with an aunt who certainly did not supply him with a warm, loving, sympathetic lap to nurse his wounds. He has evolved into someone who is desperately dying for acceptance and attention, while simultaneously shunning and despising it and all who might give it to him. Highsmith sums the latter up beautifully in this passage, one that comes after Tom has obsessively pursued and befriended Dickie, the young man he has been sent to Italy to bring home to his American father:
He stared at Dickie's blue eyes that were still frowning, the sun-bleached eyebrows white and the eyes themselves shining empty, nothing but little pieces of blue jelly with black dots in them, meaningless, without relation to him. You were supposed to see the soul through the eyes, the one place you could look at another human being and see what really went on inside, and in Dickie's eyes Tom saw nothing more now than he would have seen if he had looked at the hard, bloodless surface of a mirror. Tom felt a painful wrench in his breast, and he covered his face with his hands. It was as if Dickie had been suddenly snatched away from him. They were not friends. They didn't know each other. (p. 89)
But don't let this sympathetic scene of a confused and unhappy young man fool you. As the passage hints, Tom does not see others for who and what they are. And he is the one with nothing to see in his eyes. He is a shyster. He is obsessed with more than his friendship with Dickie. And he is -- as the cover copy on the book reveals -- a man capable of committing murder, certainly not stopping after only one. To me, the book would have been a bit more believable -- if less of a page-turner -- had he only committed one murder. However, I ultimately came to realize that he couldn't stop at merely one murder; it would have been too easy for him to get away with that one.
And we know he had to get away with it. After all, there are quite a few more Ripley novels after this one, and they can't all be about a man serving out his prison term or living beyond the grave (that's one of the downfalls of reading books published 55 years ago. You know what comes after them). They're not, as reading the blurbs at the end of this book will tell you. Tom will manage to make it through all this, so that he can star in the next book with his name in the title.
I, for one, am mesmerized enough to seek out that title at the library (perhaps when I go to pick up Dennis Lehane. Nothing like a couple of weeks spent in psychological horror). I will also buy some more delicious-smelling bubbly stuff for the bath (pretending I need an excuse to do so). After all, we have left Ripley nicely set for life, possibly owning homes both in America and on The Continent. What more could we want than to keep stalking him to see where he winds up next? Well, perhaps we could want an even longer bath and bigger glasses of sherry to assuage our guilt over rooting for someone who is "...as low as the lowest rat that scurried in the gutters of Athens..." (p. 279)
Huh. It seems my subconscience knew what it was doing after all when that rat began sniffing around its corner of my brain.